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13 Innovators Shaping The Future Of Health

Fortune Well September 28, 2023


13 Innovators Shaping The Future Of Health

In an industry worth more than $800 billion, it’s hard to stand out. But the following innovators have found a way. Whether they’re tackling women’s health, creating wellness communities, or encouraging us to build better habits, this year’s finalists are making a difference in the lives of many. They’re doctors, scientists, entrepreneurs, and advocates on a mission to create a happier, healthier, and more equitable world. Our honorees have had major accomplishments over the past year and are using their influence to increase health and wellness access. Learn more about them below.


Leader: U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy

As the “Nation’s Doctor,” the U.S. surgeon general is no stranger to public health crises. But lately, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy has become an outspoken advocate for emotional and mental well-being by addressing the loneliness epidemic and issuing his workplace well-being report.

In an interview at Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference earlier this year, Murthy said: “It turns out loneliness is a public health issue. And I would say it has risen to the level of being a public health crisis. It’s an experience that we all have from time to time, but when it’s persistent, or when it’s extreme, it can actually come with significant health risks.”

In addition to loneliness, the surgeon general also warned the country about the mental health risks of social media, especially as it pertains to teenagers, and called for more government oversight of social media companies saying: “There are ample indicators that social media can also have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents. At this time, we do not yet have enough evidence to determine if social media is sufficiently safe for children and adolescents.”


Creator: Fidji Simo, CEO of Instacart and cofounder of Metrodora Institute

After going to countless frustrating doctor’s appointments and having her pain routinely dismissed (sadly, a common experience for women navigating the U.S. healthcare system), Fidji Simo grew sick and tired of being sick and tired.

“I was fainting constantly, I was feeling weak, and I went to see this neurologist. He said, ‘Sweetie, you’re just a tired mom,’” Simo told Fortune’s Maria Aspan back in 2021. “It was infuriating.”

The experience led Simo to cofound Metrodora Institute along with Dr. Laura A. Pace and James Hemp in an effort to focus on both the research and treatment of “complex neuroimmune disorders,” including long COVID, migraines, endometriosis, and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), the latter of which Simo suffers from. The 60,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art medical and research center opened earlier this year in Salt Lake City and includes a for-profit clinic as well as a nonprofit foundation.

“Our current health care system is not designed to diagnose, treat, and ultimately cure complex chronic diseases. We founded Metrodora Institute to break down the silos between different specialties of medicine and between clinical care and research,” says Simo. “Metrodora Institute was inspired by what health care should be and provides patients with the multidisciplinary, collaborative care they deserve as well as the ability to contribute to research. Science should improve human health faster, so our hope is that Metrodora can offer a blueprint for how we approach all chronic illnesses in the future.”

Entrepreneurs: Ziyi Gao and Vedant Pradeep, cofounders of Reframe

More than half of U.S. adults report drinking alcohol in the past month with nearly 17% binge drinking (defined as five or more drinks for men and four or more drinks for women) and 6% reporting heavy drinking (15 drinks or more per week for men and eight drinks or more for women). But Reframe, an alcohol-reduction app cofounded by Ziyi Gao and Vedant Pradeep, is aiming to change that.

By focusing on the science behind forming habits, Gao and Pradeep are helping users either quit drinking altogether or cut back on alcohol, depending on their goals. To start, users have to determine their reason for wanting to reduce their alcohol consumption. From there, they enter a 90-day program developed in partnership with psychiatrists and psychologists that includes activities such as reading and journaling. Afterward, users learn how to identify their triggers and replace their negative habits with healthier ones. So far, the app has helped more than 2 million people reduce their alcohol intake since launching in 2020, when the U.S. experienced a 40-year high in “alcohol-induced” deaths. 

This past year, the company began offering live 24/7 group coaching sessions, and coming soon is the Super Human Project, which is part of the Reframe Mind app. “This endeavor aims to help users reach the peak human condition through a personalized wellness and stress resilience plan. With activities rooted in groundbreaking neuroscience and psychology research, users can tackle stress in all areas of their lives,” Gao tells Fortune via email. “At Reframe, we aim to be the go-to for all things wellness. That’s why this project offers an end-to-end lifestyle program that provides exercise programs, mindfulness activities, stress reduction tips, and supplement suggestions custom-built for each user to solve their unique problems.”

Up next: The team is gearing up to release Reframe Habits, an app to help users set sustainable goals in all areas of life: exercise, nutrition, hydration, and more. “Users receive real-time data on their progress and can track their trends over time,” says Gao. “This metric-based approach is effective in helping users continuously adjust their routines and behaviors for optimal results.”

Advocate: Dr. Uché Blackstock, author and founder of Advancing Health Equity

With Black women accounting for less than 3% of U.S. doctors, Dr. Uché Blackstock decided to take matters into her own hands. An emergency physician who spent eight years as an assistant professor at New York University’s School of Medicine, Blackstock left it all behind in 2019 and founded Advancing Health Equity, a health equity consultancy. 

“Advancing Health Equity’s primary mission is to engage with health care and related organizations to dismantle bias and racism in health care with the goal of mobilizing for health equity and closing the gap in racial health inequities,” she says. 

Since then, Blackstock has become a prominent voice on racism in medicine, and her company has partnered with various organizations, ranging from hospitals to nonprofits to pharmaceutical companies. Her mission? To equip businesses with the health equity and DEI tools and strategies they need to provide racially equitable care and to create an anti-racist workplace culture that honors every human being. And she’s far from finished.

This year, Blackstock partnered with the Advil Pain Equity Project, a multiyear commitment to help address inequity and racial bias in the diagnosis and treatment of pain. She’s also gearing up for the January 2024 release of her highly anticipated memoir, Legacy, which documents her rise as a physician, her career in medicine, and her fight against health inequity against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement.


Problem Solver: Spencer Orkus, partner at L+M Development Partners

Where we live can have a profound impact on our happiness and our health. Just ask Spencer Orkus, one of the developers of the Alafia housing project in Brooklyn, which derives inspiration from Blue Zones around the world and is expected to be completed in 2030. 

In Blue Zones—such as Nicoya, Costa Rica, Sardinia, Italy; Ikaria, Greece; and, most recently, Singapore—people tend to live longer, healthier lives in tight-knit communities that prioritize plant-based eating, meaningful long-lasting friendships, and physical activity. The Alafia project, which includes more than 2,400 units on a 28-acre site in East New York, attempts to replicate that by integrating affordable housing into an open-space setting that encourages movement, community-wide programming, and access to health care in one of the world’s most expensive cities. 

“We need to provide a safe space that will lift people beyond having to only focus on their physiological needs,” says Orkus, who joined L+M in 2007 and has developed more than 5,000 affordable apartments across various projects. “By prioritizing a sense of community and belonging, creating opportunities for people to build a sense of purpose, and access to healthy food in a walkable neighborhood, our aim is to not only improve the quality of life for residents but improve health outcomes, too.”


Inventor: Steve Collins, associate professor of Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University

Roughly one in three people experiences restricted mobility as the result of an injury, disability, and/or the effects of aging, which is why Steve Collins and his team at Stanford University have been developing a wearable robotic boot that will help people walk and run with “less effort, greater speed, reduced pain, and improved balance.”

The unique design includes versatile hardware emulators, which Collins describes as “virtual reality systems for your legs,” and “human-in-the-loop optimization.” Through machine learning, the exoskeleton can better assist the wearer each time they walk.

“Our exoskeletons can quickly individualize to new users to improve their walking speed and reduce fatigue while walking around campus under real-world conditions,” explains Collins, who also directs the Stanford Biomechatronics Laboratory. “We’re now working on devices that help people recover their balance when they begin to fall and devices that reduce joint pain when walking and running.”


Pioneer: Frédérique Welgryn, global vice president for women’s health for Perrigo

Little has changed regarding birth control pills since the original oral contraceptive debuted back in the 1950s. But this summer, pharmaceutical company Perrigo announced that Opill will be the first-ever birth control available over the counter in the United States. The progestin-only pill (which has limited side effects because it doesn’t include estrogen) was approved by the Food and Drug Administration to be sold without a prescription, although it won’t start shipping until next year.

The historic move was headed in large part by Frédérique Welgryn, Perrigo’s global vice president for women’s health. Welgryn, who is a pharmacist by trade and also led the effort to get emergency contraception approved for over-the-counter use, tells Fortune the process took nearly a decade but was well worth it.

“It’s about access. The contraception that works is the contraception you choose,” she says. “It’s about getting the solution that you want and that you need at the right moment without hassles, without being patronized, without being lectured, without the shame and taboo. Anything that increases choice and increases our options goes in the right direction. We have to have a choice.”


Scientist: Dr. Thomas Zwaka, founder of Paratus Sciences Corp.

With labs in New York and Singapore, startup biotech company Paratus Sciences Corp. is investing $100 million into researching bats in hopes of developing new drugs that could fight off viruses, as well as cancer, diabetes, and other medical conditions.

“By studying the unique DNA and stem cells of bats, we’re unlocking nature’s age-old secrets to address challenges like aging, cancer, and viruses,” says Zwaka, a stem-cell researcher at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. “Our groundbreaking projects aim not only to treat diseases but to reshape the way we think about them, paving the way for a healthier tomorrow.”


Connectors: Brittany Hawkins and Catherine Hendy, cofounders of Elanza Wellness

What originally started as a “fertility travel agency,” after cofounders Brittany Hawkins and Catherine Hendy met in South Africa after freezing their eggs, has evolved into a virtual healthcare platform for people living with endometriosis, a common chronic and poorly understood condition in which tissue similar to the lining of the uterus grows outside the uterus, which can cause pain and infertility.

Their new app, EverythingEndo, launched into open beta this August with its first 1,000 sign-ups. Hawkins and Hendy built the platform in collaboration with patients, scientists, and healthcare providers to provide better support, reduced costs, and faster access to effective interventions.

In addition to medical support, the subscription platform offers surgical and fertility coordination, insurance advocacy, and other tools designed to help users navigate everyday life with endometriosis. Next up, the team intends to work with insurance companies to provide virtual care coverage and extend its scalable model to address other overlooked chronic conditions in women.


Motivator: Wesley Hamilton, founder of Disabled But Not Really

Five years after gunshot wounds left Hamilton with a spinal cord injury and paralyzed from the waist down, he founded the nonprofit Disabled But Not Really (DBNR) to inspire other people with disabilities through nutrition and fitness. 

After opening its first mobile gym in Kansas City, Missouri, in 2021 specifically designed to offer adaptive and inclusive spaces for people with disabilities, DBNR expanded the mobile gym offering to Los Angeles with hopes of further expansion across the country.

“DBNR is committed to empowering individuals with disabilities to realize their potential through cultivating courage, confidence, and competence,” says Hamilton. “Through innovative programs like #HelpMeFit, which includes a 12-week fitness challenge, DBNR offers a comprehensive approach that encompasses adaptive equipment, physical and occupational therapists, and a fully accessible gym at the DBNR Wellness Center.”


Problem Solver: Dr. Jean-Paul Chretien, Biological Technologies office program manager

After the COVID-19 pandemic brought the country’s blood supply to a critically low level, the government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) began looking into innovative blood substitutes that can be used in both military and civilian situations.

According to DARPA, bleeding is the most common cause of potentially survivable death in trauma, and while actual blood is the first choice, its limited availability and need for cold storage can make it difficult to obtain in emergency settings. The agency’s Fieldable Solutions for Hemorrhage with Bio-Artificial Resuscitation Products (FSHARP) program aims to change that with a shelf-stable whole blood equivalent that’s able to be deployed into the field to resuscitate trauma patients.

“We don’t think anyone should die as a result of there not being enough blood available to transfuse, whether that’s on the battlefield in a military setting or in a community hospital or in a civilian mass casualty situation in the United States or anywhere in the world,” says Cmdr. Jean-Paul Chretien, DARPA’s program manager for FSHARP and a U.S. Navy medical officer, of the four-year program, which kicked off earlier this year. 

Under Chretien’s leadership, a team at the University of Maryland, Baltimore is working with a large consortium of other universities and companies to develop a shelf-stable blood that is able to deliver oxygen, stop bleeding, and replace the volume of blood lost in traumatic events. They’re also researching scalable manufacturing methods and ways to stabilize the product for months so that it won’t require cold storage.

“We want to tap into the creativity of the science and technology community to come up with ways of doing it,” says Chretien. “We want it to be as effective as real donated blood, and they’re working on an integrated way to do that.”

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